The Civil War Trust just released one of its latest short videos about Zouave soldiers, the prominent and multi-colored soldiers that adorned the battlefields in both armies, but predominantly the Union. Jim Taub gives an excellent discussion of Zouaves in the Civil War, and it can be viewed here: http://www.civilwar.org/education/in4/zouaves.html.
What I want to do in this post is amplify a bit Jim’s remarks about Zouaves in the French Army. The original Zouaves were Algerian, and made up two volunteer battalions in 1831. The number of Zouave units grew over the next decades along with other North African units in the French Army. Zouaves fought in the Crimea, against Austria in 1859 (about the time they became famous in the U.S.) and later participated in the Franco-Prussian War at Sedan and in Brittany. Most Zouaves served in North Africa, but some units ended up in various colonial wars of the latter decades of the 19th Century and even in the Boxer Rebellion actions of 1900 and 1901. Zouaves also were on the battlefields in the First World War, as Jim accurately mentions, although by 1915 they were wearing dull-pattern dress as opposed to the colorful kit of the 19th Century.
But the First World War’s end was not the end of Zouaves. North African troops were again called to the colors in 1939-40. At Sedan in May 1940, the 4th North African Division (including the 13th Zouave Regiment) fought to annihilation trying to stem the advance of Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division; as a lieutenant in the 13th recalled, “We were encircled, and any resistance became useless.” Zouaves of the 1st North African Division assisted the retreat to Dunkirk before being surrounded and crushed at Lille, while other Zouaves fought along the Somme line in the last desperate stand of a dying France. As part of the 3d Algerian Division in 1944, Zouaves participated in the liberation of France.
The last name on the roll of Zouave battles is Algeria 1954-62, where Zouaves fought with the French Army in all major operations, especially the Battle of Algiers. With Algerian independence, the Zouave units (which by this point were recruited from the expatriate French population in Algeria, which was leaving as a result of the war) were disbanded.
Today Zouaves are gone from the French Army, except for the occasional ceremonial event. But for 131 years, these tough, colorful, and elite soldiers helped France fight her wars.
Top Image: A Zouave unit on the march, circa 1914.
Center Image: Zouaves in a French prisoner column, 1940.
Below: Members of the 4th Zouave Regiment in Algeria, 1960.